Nico Hulkenberg’s standout drive at the weekend in Korea, where he finished fourth and his strong recent form have made him a candidate for a number of seats for next season. The driver market is quite fluid at the moment and there are opportunities.
But we keep hearing that driver weight is an issue and a potential stumbling block for tall, heavy drivers like Hulkenberg. We flagged this up on JA on F1 several months ago, but now that the serious talking has begun, it’s front of mind.
So here is an insight into why weight is suddenly such a high priority, with input from JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan.
The start point is that whatever the minimum weight limit in the regulations, running a car over that weight is an absolute no-no. You are giving away lap time unneccesarily and undermining all the hard work on development. Every additional 10kg of weight on an F1 car is worth on average 3/10ths of a second per lap over a season. This is a problem some of the teams at the back of the grid have faced as they try to get up to state of art car construction.
It is considered not very professional for established teams to be overweight. There are many reasons: one is that engineers like to run instruments and measuring equipment on the car, to study air flows and other parameters. If the car is overweight they can’t do this and miss out on the data gathering.
The weight of an F1 driver has therefore always been an issue to some extent. A car is built under the weight limit and then team place ballast (small dense pieces of material) in the floor of the car to get the weight as low as possible. A tall, heavy driver raises the centre of gravity and means less ballast.
Vettel weighs 64kg, Gutierrez is 61kg, Massa just 59kg, Button is 70kg, Di Resta 74, Webber 75, Sutil 78kg, for example.
So why is it so critical for 2014?
Driver weight has become more important since the arrival of KERS (hybrid) in F1, because it introduced a new component weighing upwards of 20kg that wasn’t there before.
With the 2014 engines there is much more powerful ERS system (hybrid) as well as other paraphernalia associated with turbos and coolers, all of which adds weight and needs to be packaged. This puts a premium on weight saving in other areas and also on cockpit space, so ideally teams would like to package it around a small light driver. The teams are up against it to get to the weight limit with a driver of around 64kg (Vettel’s weight) for next year. To put Hulkenberg in the car is to invite in another 10kg, which is a major headache. He is 13kg heavier than team mate Gutierrez, for example, which is worth 4/10ths of a second in lap time.
Hulkenberg’s expressed his view on this at the weekend, “In terms of my weight and height, there’s no point in discussing it because it’s god-given, I can’t change it. If a team wants me, they’ll have to work around it.”
So why don’t they change the regulations on weight limit for 2014?
This has been a talking point at Technical Working Group meetings for the last few years as 2014 approached. The limit has been raised several times as teams flagged up difficulties in getting a car built to the weight. But more recently teams who have achieved the minimum weight for 2014 are less willing to give up their advantage. Likewise teams with light drivers are not willing to give up their advantage. Why should they be penalised if another team wants to hire Hulkenberg?
McLaren is a possibility for Hulkenberg, but Martin Whitmarsh said at the weekend, “We have to find a solution, but I doubt we will find one in the next few weeks or months. But sadly, the way it has worked out means the heavier drivers will be less attractive. It has happened by accident.
“We have raised the minimum weight but the new powertrains are heavier than people expected and now have a situation where heavier drivers could be a disadvantage.”
So what happens to heavier drivers, like Hulkenberg?
The sport has walked into this situation, collectively and now that things are set for 2014 you are unlikely to get a consensus to make any changes. Hulkenberg will appeal because of his obvious quality, but he will appeal only to a team that knows it can get under the weight limit.
A driver who is small and light and who has a lot of experience in developing cars is attractive at the moment and that is why Massa still has some interest in the paddock.
As Jenson Button observed, “I don’t think any team will have ballast next year.
“I’ve been a kilo heavy maybe. It’s doesn’t hurt you over a lap because you can set the car up around yourself but you lose a lot of tools to adjust the car. You can’t move the weight distribution because you’re so limited.
“Next year we don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but I think it’s going to be very tricky. Every year you start the year with ballast but the car puts on weight because you add parts to it. It does hurt the heavier drivers and it’s very unfair to say lose weight because some of us can’t lose more weight.”
Hulkenberg’s most likely destination – provided they can shore up their financial problems – is Lotus, who have tracked hims for most of the year as a replacement for Raikkonen.
Team principal Eric Boullier wants to prioritise the driver and let the engineers sort out the weight of the car, “I prefer to have talent and let my engineers work on saving weight in the car,” Boullier said. “It is true that 10kg on paper is roughly three tenths of a second, but the target is to at least be on the weight limit. And then, you don’t have this issue anymore.”
That is a major challenge for engineers, but it’s also going to be a challenge for Hulkenberg. Whoever hires him is going to ask him to lose at least 3/4 kg over the winter, if possible. Perhaps he should give Sir Bradley Wiggins a call, he managed it before his 2012 Tour de France win.